Last weekend, a Jewish group in San Francisco engaged in a reenactment of the so-called treyfa banquet that took place in Cincinnati in 1883. Held to celebrate the tenth anniversary of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations—the predecessor to today’s Union of Reform Judaism—the original event received its nickname because of the variety of non-kosher (in Yiddish, treyf) food served there, which created something of a scandal. But reporting on the more recent festivities has gotten the facts of the original event wrong; Jonathan Sarna sets the record straight:
The original treyfa banquet . . . capped ceremonies aimed, ironically, at unifying American Jews. . . . It symbolized the longstanding goal of Rabbi Isaac Mayer Wise, president of [America’s first rabbinical school] Hebrew Union College, to lead a broad, ideologically diverse coalition committed to strengthening American Judaism.
Unlike this month’s reenactment, the infamous Cincinnati banquet prepared for the 100 Jewish leaders served no pork at all. Many Reform Jews of that time believed that abstaining from pork sufficiently distinguished them from their non-Jewish neighbors. . . . So Jews avoided pork products, even if they consumed [non-kosher] seafood.
The many non-kosher foods that did appear on the menu of the lavish nine-course banquet—clams, crabs, shrimp, frogs’ legs, and so forth—were not . . . the product of careful planning and prearranged advertising. They resulted instead from carelessness and lack of proper oversight. The well-known Jewish caterer who planned the dinner took no account of the fact that traditionalists had been invited to the celebration and created a banquet like so many other lavish Jewish banquets held in his club—akin to non-Jewish banquets, minus the pork. . . .
Wise also knew the banquet was a blunder. After all, he himself kept a kosher home—his second wife, the daughter of an Orthodox rabbi, insisted upon it. But he was not the kind of leader who believed in making apologies. Instead, he lashed out against his critics, insisting that the dietary laws had lost all validity, and ridiculed them for advocating “kitchen Judaism.”
The treyfa banquet helped pave the way for the creation of a more traditional Jewish rabbinical seminary, New York’s Jewish Theological Seminary, [now the flagship institution of Conservative Judaism]. Once Wise abandoned the goal of “union” and cast his lot with more radical Reform Jews who repudiated Jewish dietary laws, those favoring a conservative approach to Jewish life moved to establish a more religiously traditional seminary to compete with Hebrew Union College.